Plague and Tularemia Reach The Valley

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New Mexico leads the nation in plague. Courtesy image

Plague and Tularemia Reach The Valley

Staff Report

The New Mexico Department of Health is reporting ten cases of plague and 19 cases of tularemia in dogs and cats in multiple counties in 2016. In addition, recent rabbit die offs due to tularemia have been confirmed in northern New Mexico areas affecting Calley residents. Confirmatory testing was conducted at the Department’s Scientific Laboratory Division.

Plague positive pets come from the following counties:  Rio Arriba, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Sandoval, Torrance, and Taos counties. Environmental investigations were conducted at each site to look for ongoing risk to others in the surrounding area. Dogs and cats have also tested positive for tularemia in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Sandoval, and Los Alamos counties.

“Plague and tularemia activity usually picks up in the spring and early summer in New Mexico, so it is important to take precautions to avoid rodents and their fleas which can expose you to these potentially deadly diseases,” said Department of Health Secretary Designate Lynn Gallagher.

Plague and tularemia are both bacterial diseases of rodents and rabbits and are generally transmitted to humans through the flea bites (plague) and deer fly bites (tularemia). They can also be transmitted by direct contact with infected animals, including rodents, wildlife and pets.

“We are seeing recent die offs of rabbits in several areas of New Mexico from both plague and tularemia,” said Dr. Paul Ettestad, public health veterinarian for the Department of Health. “People can be exposed to plague when pets bring infected fleas back into the home, by caring for a sick pet without proper precautions, or by contact with rodents or fleas outdoors. In addition, exposure to tularemia can occur from bites from deer flies or handling infected animals.”

To prevent plague, the Department of Health recommends:

  • Keep your pets from roaming and hunting.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about using an appropriate flea control product on your pets as not all products are safe for cats, dogs, or your children.
  • Clean up areas near the house where rodents could live, such as woodpiles, brush piles, junk and abandoned vehicles.
  • Sick pets should be examined promptly by a veterinarian.
  • See your doctor about any unexplained illness involving a sudden and severe fever.
  • Put hay, wood, and compost piles as far as possible from your home.
  • Don’t leave your pet’s food and water where mice can get to it.

Symptoms of plague in humans include sudden onset of fever, chills, headache, and weakness. In most cases there is a painful swelling of the lymph node in the groin, armpit or neck areas. Plague symptoms in cats and dogs are fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. There may be a swelling in the lymph node under the jaw. With prompt diagnosis and appropriate antibiotic treatment, the fatality rate in people and pets can be greatly reduced. Physicians who suspect plague should promptly report it to the Department of Health.

Four humans contracted plague in New Mexico in 2015 with one fatality in Santa Fe County. Eight human cases of tularemia were confirmed in 2015 with no fatalities. In addition, in 2015 there were 18 confirmed cases of plague and 63 cases of tularemia in dogs and cats. For more information, including fact sheets in English and Spanish, please visit our Plague section of our website.